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Dr. Channing Der on PanCAN-AACR Grants Impact

Channing J. Der, PhD

Dr. Channing Der serves as the Sarah Graham Kenan Professor of Pharmacology at the Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Having received his PhD from the University of California at Irvine, Dr. Der went on to complete his postdoctoral research training at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute and Harvard Medical School. As a two-time PanCAN-AACR grant recipient, Dr. Der details the impact these grants have had on his career and the scope of his research:

What inspires you to pursue pancreatic cancer research?

The determination and dedication of pancreatic cancer survivors and of families who have lost a loved one to this deadly cancer are truly inspirational to me. Despite the pain that this cancer has brought to them, they are determined to fight this disease and to support pancreatic cancer research. This community of advocates provides faces and stories that remind us researchers that people are really counting on us to make breakthroughs in the treatment of pancreatic cancer.

In your view, what is the potential impact of the PanCAN-AACR grants, and what does it mean, for you, to have received these grants?

One major impact is that these grants support research often considered too risky for the NIH. A criticism of NIH-funded research is that it favors research that is highly likely to be successful, rather than high-risk / high-gain ideas and more provocative and speculative directions. The PanCAN-AACR grants that I have received funded our earlier high-risk / potentially high-gain ideas, which then positioned us for future NIH grant support. A second major impact involves the annual PanCAN research retreats, where we are given the opportunity to report our findings to other pancreatic cancer researchers. This fosters networking and establishing scientific collaborations. Also, that these meetings are held concurrently with pancreatic cancer advocates allows researchers to hear from the people that are most affected by our research. This opportunity to connect with patients and families is unique, not a feature of other scientific meetings, and it is very inspiring for us researchers to see their [patients and families] appreciation for what we do.

Please list and describe any innovations that have been introduced into your research process as a result of your PanCAN-AACR grants.

The collaborations established at PanCAN-sponsored research retreats as well as the networking social events during the annual AACR meeting strengthen our research. The interaction with pancreatic cancer survivors and families has stimulated us to increase our community outreach. We now host lab open houses where the community can gain an appreciation for how their advocacy for research impacts and strengthens the research that we do.

What do you consider the most important scientific advance(s) made because of your PanCAN-AACR grants?

The goal of our studies was to identify drug combinations that enhance the therapeutic benefit of inhibitors of the ERK mitogen-activated protein kinase cascade, the key signaling mechanism by which the KRAS oncoprotein (mutated in ~95% of pancreatic cancers) drives pancreatic cancer growth. One combination, with the autophagy inhibitor hydroxychloroquine, was unexpectedly effective. This then led us to initiate a clinical trial with our grant collaborators from MD Anderson Cancer Center, to evaluate this combination approach in pancreatic cancer. Our findings also prompted the initiation of additional clinical trials at other institutions. The PanCAN-AACR grants represent the first time we have been able to transition our basic research findings to clinical evaluation.

Have your PanCAN-AACR grants allowed you to pursue research that would not have been otherwise possible? If so, how?

Yes – as mentioned above, proposing a screen, where the outcome and chances of success are completely unknown, would not have been an idea that would have been funded by an NIH grant. So, both PanCAN-AACR grants allowed us to do high-risk research that otherwise would not have been possible. Also, for the Research Acceleration Network Grant, the requirement that we initiate a clinical trial based on our findings affected how we designed and guided and designed the earlier preclinical studies. Although trial initiation is not required in our NIH-funded research, we have now integrated this different way of thinking to enhance the translational strength of all of our research.

Please briefly describe the effect, if any, of being a PanCAN-AACR grant recipient may have had on your career. For example, additional funding, researchers interested in collaboration/working in your laboratory, etc.

The impact has been at many different levels. First, rather than just the pursuit of fascinating and challenging scientific questions, potential therapeutic impact now guides the directions and goals of our research. Second, the study of pancreatic cancer is now dominant in our research over all other cancer types. Third, we have utilized the findings from these grants to successfully compete for very significant additional grant and fellowship support. Fourth, these studies fostered collaborations with other pancreatic cancer researchers, allowing us to establish a comprehensive research network that has taken our research to a higher level. Finally, it has advanced my career as well as those of many of the graduate students and postdoctoral fellows who contributed to these studies.

How would you describe the influence that patients and their families have had on your approach to pancreatic cancer research?

This influence has been incredibly significant, it has changed my motivations and goals for my research. I want to be sure that our research has real and significant potential to improve patient care. It has altered the directions and goals of our research – our studies are now considerably more translational. Studying pancreatic cancer is not solely a scientific and intellectual exercise, it is driven to make an impact on people.

Since 1993, AACR’s grants program has contributed to the development of new and improved approaches to cancer treatment and cure. What is your vision for the future of pancreatic cancer research?

I envision substantial improvements in the establishment and application of preclinical models of pancreatic cancer that better model the patient’s cancer. This will increase the chances that preclinical research findings will more accurately predict the outcome of new therapies in the clinic.